TORONTO (CCN) — An exclusive focus on whether or not women might be ordained deacons misses the real point of the conversation Pope Francis had with leaders of 900 orders of nuns May 12 at the Vatican, said a Canadian sister who was present for the gathering.
“What he’s actually saying isn’t that we’re going to be studying if women can become deacons,” said Sister Rita Larivée, congregational leader of the Sisters of Ste. Anne and president of the Canadian Religious Conference.
“What he’s saying is, we’re going to go back and study what was the role of these women deacons we have read about from the writings of the early church. We want to get to the substance of this and really explore what would be the options.”
An international media furor erupted after the pope, in response to a question on whether he would establish a commission to study if women could become deacons, responded: “I accept. It would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree.” (See related story.)
His reply sparked international headlines and caused the Vatican to issue a clarification to make it clear the pope had no plans “to introduce a diaconal ordination for women,” nor was there reason to speculate about the ordination of women priests.
Rather than whether or not to ordain women, the point of a study would be to look at what the history of women deacons teaches us about how women exercise leadership and authority in the church, said Larivée.
The church today has a problem with how women’s voices are heard in decision-making, but the solutions to that problem will only come by examining history and building on tradition, Larivée said.
“The next step is to try to figure out, OK, where do we go from here in building the best church we can, because the world deserves nothing less,” she said.
Pope Francis said his understanding was the deaconesses in the early church were not ordained, but they mainly assisted with the anointing and baptism of women.
The pope also said he would obtain a full explanation of why women are not permitted to give a homily at mass.
The history of women in the diaconate is well-known in academic circles, Saint Paul University theologian Catherine Clifford said in an email.
“The historical research has indeed been done, but remains largely ignored,” she wrote from Ottawa.
The issue of whether or not to ordain women as deacons bubbled to the surface last fall when Gatineau’s Archbishop Paul-André Durocher brought it up at the synod on the family.
“Archbishop Durocher is asking that women who already accomplish this ministry (of service) be sacramentally incorporated into the ministerial structure of the local church,” said Clifford. “Much as the bishops at Vatican II asked that married laymen acting in roles of service be ordained to the permanent diaconal office. In my view, this would be a significant step in the continuing process of restoring a permanent order of the diaconate in the structuring of ecclesial ministries.”
While ordaining women deacons is one possible outcome, the conversation between the pope and sisters from around the world in Rome was about the bigger issue of how women are included and involved in decision-making, said Canadian Religious Conference executive director Rev. Timothy Scott.
“I don’t think it (ordain or not) was the substantive question that was being put to the Holy Father,” Scott said. “The question was really about this whole question of roles and responsibility of women in the church, especially how to involve women in decision-making bodies.”
The pope’s overriding concern about the sin of clericalism ensures that any future Vatican study of women in the diaconate won’t result in a simple case either for or against ordaining women deacons, Scott said.
“It was a very preliminary kind of conversation. It’s a very modest, modest step,” he said. “The issue that was really being discussed was the role of women within decision-making organs within the church and how they can be enhanced. That’s what the focus was on.”
This was the second time Pope Francis has met with members of the International Union of Superiors General, the UISG. But it was the first time the meeting had interpreters available to facilitate conversation in the 11 languages the UISG uses.
Though conversation was natural, sometimes humorous and free-flowing, it was no free-for-all, said Larivée. For more than one hour the pope took prepared, pre-submitted questions from each language group represented.
The pope’s openness to dialogue is itself a sign of hope, Larivée said.
“It’s a very big affirmation of the fact that we need to have this conversation,” she said. “It says, there’s nothing wrong with discussing any question. We can talk about it. And that was refreshing.”
The pope understands and recognizes the frustrations of women who feel themselves excluded or underrepresented in pastoral, liturgical and other kinds of decisions, she said.
“For many women it has been frustrating,” she said. “He’s trying to face the reality that we represent 50 per cent of the human family. And how do you even begin to do this if you can’t even talk about the question. So what he does is he says, ‘Sure, we can talk about the question.’ ”